2 Jun 2011

The Green Belt - a very Tory problem

I have been dipping into a draft of the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) which is taxiing for take-off sometime in the not-too-distant-future (OK - I actually have no idea when). The NPPF sets out to streamline and simplify all the various national planning guidances (the PPGs and PPSs) into one document. This first draft will get re-written and then go out to consultation and in time it will become the business. In England only — planning being a devolved matter.

Now I must declare a small interest here because I am currently well involved with another consultation exercise going on in the world of selfbuild, where various noteworthies and practitioners are sitting in smoke-free rooms trying to come up with suggestions for housing minister Grant Shapps to make selfbuild easier and more mainstream. You can't sit for very long in a smoke-free room talking about selfbuild without the topic of planning coming up — in fact it sort of pervades pretty much all the discussions.

So if you like, the draft NPPF document is homework for me. It's certainly not the sort of thing I would be reading for pleasure. But it's not badly written and I must quietly admit to enjoying the odd moment. The thing that strikes me most about it, and the bit I am getting around to, is the fact that despite it being a new document, all the old planning speak is still in place, and all the old contradictions are there to be examined, and put back in the box.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the battle between housing supply and Green Belt. Here's what this document says about housing supply objectives:

The Government’s key housing objective is to significantly increase the delivery of new homes. Everyone should have the opportunity to live in high quality, well designed homes, which they can afford, in a community where they want to live. To achieve this objective, the Government is seeking to:

␣ significantly increase the supply of housing;
␣ deliver a wide choice of high quality homes that people want and need;
␣ widen opportunities for home ownership; and
␣ create sustainable, inclusive and mixed communities in all areas, including through the regeneration and renewal of areas of poor housing.

To enable this, the planning system should aim to deliver a sufficient quantity, quality and range of housing consistent with the land use principles and other polices of this National Planning Policy Framework.

It all sounds very pro-housing until you get halfway through the last sentence, the bit that starts "consistent with...". Ask yourself which is more important. Housing supply? Or land use principles? I think the phrase consistent with tells you that it's land use principles which rule the roost.

And for land use principles, you can read protection, and for this you can read Green Belt. Here's what the same document has to say about Green Belt.

The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

Green Belt serves five purposes:
␣ to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
␣ to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
␣ to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
␣ to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
␣ to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Once Green Belts have been defined, local authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; retain and enhance landscapes and biodiversity; or improve damaged and derelict land.

Take another look at the first sentence. The fundamental aim of the Green Belt is to prevent urban sprawl. Urban sprawl? You can't help but stand back here and think, firstly, what the hell is urban sprawl and, secondly, who would give a shit about urban sprawl. It then goes on to list five supplementary reasons why we should be worried about urban sprawl.

The one I like best is the prevention of neighbouring towns merging into one another, as if this is a way of stopping the transmission of infectious diseases. We have the horrors of the Medway towns, and Bournemouth and Poole staring us in the face, as these coalescences had occurred before the Green Belt policies got to work. How much worse could it have got? If it wasn't for these policies, upmarket Cheltenham might even now have been swallowed up by Gloucester (tabloid) City.

In fact, the more you read these justifications for Green Belt, the quainter they sound. And the killer sentence is of course the last one. Here it is again. For emphasis sake.

local authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; retain and enhance landscapes and biodiversity; or improve damaged and derelict land.

Now access, outdoor sport and biodiversity are all very well and good, but the country isn't exactly short of any of these.

So how can a planning policy make out that on the one hand housing supply should be increased significantly whilst, on the other, the obvious location for this new housing supply is off limits and can only be used for access, outdoor sport and bird watching? Who says? Who exactly comes up with this planning theory? And how come someone doesn't point out that it doesn't make any sense?

Now for many years, some of our more subversive commentators have put a very different interpretation on these policies. The last to nail his colours to the mast was the undercover economist Tim Harford. Harford argued that the Green Belt exists largely to protect the status quo and to maintain high property prices in English villages in particular. By preventing the expansion of villages, the Green Belt acts as an Economic Cleanser, and the poor eventually get shunted out into the urban social housing estates that the Green Belt actually encourages. My recent straw polls of planning-type people who I have been canvassing suggest that the Harford line is broadly accepted, and that the "urban sprawl" justifications used in planning policy documents are there pretty much as window dressing.

Not that there aren't a lot of people around who think the Green Belt is and should remain sacrosant. Here's what history lecturer, TV pundit and now a Labour MP Tristram Hunt had to say about it in 2008 (quoted in Daily Telegraph) "Of course our green belt is sacred. The alternative is a car-dependent, exurban sprawl disfiguring our towns and villages, worsening climate change, leeching cities into wilderness and doing nothing to bring down the cost of housing."

Not only is this mostly a load of bollocks, it's dishonest bollocks, esp the last bit about the cost of housing. That's having your cake and eating it. My point is that you can build in the countryside, or you can have fields in the countryside and high house prices, but you can't have both.

Which brings us to the Tories because here is a political party that actively wants both. The countryside is pretty much Tory heartland and rural Tories don't like voting for new housing development (because they like to hang on to what they have got). Despite the Green Belt originally being a Socialist-inspired idea, it's the rural Tories who will now be fighting hardest for its retention.